Book: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng
‘Lydia is dead’ says the opening line of this book. However don’t go into it thinking it to be a thriller and you’ll love it.
This is the story of…
…a mixed race couple, Marilyn and James Lee, and their children Lydia, Nathan and Hannah.
Lydia is clearly the parents’ favourite. She is the focus of their lives and carries the burden of their expectations. Marilyn wants Lydia to become a doctor and sees it as the fulfilment of her own childhood dream. James on the other hand has always struggled to fit in being a child of Chinese parents. He wants Lydia to have friends, to be a ‘regular American teen’.
Nathan and Hannah get stray bits of their parent’s attention. Nath is bullied by Lee to the point where he begins to doubt himself. He is by turns resentful and sympathetic towards Lydia. Hannah remains an invisible presence longing for her parents’ as well as her siblings’ affection. She is an insightful little girl observing much more than she’s given credit for.
Then one day Lydia disappears. A few days later her body is fished out from a lake. That’s when the delicate threads that hold the family unravel, spilling out ugly secrets. Is it a murder? Is it a suicide? Does her friendship with their neighbour Jack have anything to do with it?
What I thought of it
Although a murder mystery forms the core of the narrative, the book is the story of a family, its criss crossing relationships and the desire of every child to be loved and accepted.
Each of the characters is beautifully etched with strong back stories that explain clearly why they behave the way they do. That is what makes this book exceptionally readable and relatable.
One can see where Marilyn and James are coming from, why they want what they do for Lydia. And yet one can also see its terrible consequences.
The relationship between Nath and Lydia is beautifully portrayed. Nath obviously resents her and yet the two share an unsaid understanding. He knows that the constant attention of her parents annoys and upsets Lydia and he tries to deflect it too, not always with happy results.
Everything I never told you talks about how expectations can weigh down a child no matter how honourable the intentions. It brings home the fact that parents can sometimes pressurise their children without even being aware of it. There’s the obvious coercion where they push, nag and reprimand and then there’s emotional coercion which isn’t as obvious and yet can be far more overwhelming and potent. Worse still, it leaves little room for refusal or rebellion because one isn’t being coerced overtly at all.
That’s a dangerous place to be in.
Oh I felt for Lydia. I know children like her – the ‘good girls’ who struggle to deliver at every level. But what happens if they cannot? What if they do not want what their parents want for them and can never say it for fear of breaking their parents’ hearts? So intense and palpable is the constant tension in Lydia’s life that one almost feels a sense of relief as the waters of the lake close on her.
As a mom to twins who worries constantly about dividing time and attention fairly between them the focus on Lydia seemed incongruous. That was perhaps the single jarring factor of the book. However, that’s not to say I haven’t seen it happen. It definitely does, thought perhaps it isn’t as blatant.
Last thought: A wonderful read about love and family and expectations. Definitely worth a read.